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Local legends, little names and unsung heroes

The greats of jazz emerged not from a vacuum but a culture on which their less prominent colleagues can offer telling perspective

One evening back in the mid-90s, I sat listening to jazz by the Floyd Standifer Quartet at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square district. A local legend in Seattle for decades, Floyd’s bebop trumpet suggested Fats Navarro, his tenor-sax stylings grooved to a bluesy vibe, and his vocals grew straight out of the black baritone tradition embodied by Billy Eckstine. Until his passing in 2007, the veteran multi-instrumentalist played a weekly gig at the New Orleans that had begun years before.

The down-home, wooden-floored jazz landmark was walking distance from Jackson Street, centre of Seattle’s bustling jazz scene of the 1940s. Talents nurtured in that far northwestern hive of swing included Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. Knowing Floyd had been privy to their stories, I lingered after the show to talk to him about the local scene back in the day. “All the big names used to come through here, right?” I asked, hoping to impress him with my knowledge. “Oh, yeah,” answered Floyd, “a lot of little names, too, a lot of little names.”

Floyd’s words remind us that the greats of the music – the big names – did not emerge from a vacuum. In fact, their innovations grew out of a network, a cultural-social-political-artistic milieu that included countless unknowns, sitting in bands next to the giants, or sharing drinks with them at the bar, all exchanging ideas and insights, interacting in myriad ways. The perspective of those countless unknowns on having been part of historic events deserves to be heard, and their accounts of interactions with the greats can increase our understanding of the music’s innovators.

The experience of Seattle legend Floyd Standifer illustrates how a little name can shine a light on events involving more famous talents. In 1946, Floyd met Quincy Jones, at that time a high-school student in Seattle. Years later, Q was tasked with taking an all-star orchestra to Europe for a production of an Arlen-Mercer show called Free And Easy. A star-studded orchestra to be sure, it boasted trumpeters Benny Bailey, Clark Terry and Leonard Johnson; a dream reeds section featuring Budd Johnson, Jerome Richardson, Sahib Shihab, Porter Kilbert and Phil Woods; trombonists Melba Liston, Quentin Jackson, Ake Persson and Jimmy Cleveland; and Les Spann on guitar and flute; plus Julius Watkins, French horn, and Buddy Catlett, bass. Catlett, whose main claim to fame were the seven years he spent as bassist with the last edition of the Armstrong All Stars, was an old friend of Q’s from Seattle. In addition to Catlett, Q had called on two more “little names” from his Seattle days, pianist Patti Bown and Floyd Standifer.

The band assembled for rehearsals in December 1959. The plan was for a conquest of Broadway after the European tour. In fact, the show folded in Paris, before the tour had gotten underway, stranding the orchestra and assorted hangers-on without a safety net. Jones used his connections to find work for the band as a stand-alone unit, and for nine months they toured Europe like a band of gypsies, periodically running out of money and having to scramble to survive. The pressure of keeping it together under such circumstances drove Jones to the brink of suicide.

Beyond these basic facts, there are a number of inconsistencies in various accounts of the tour, but the one I find most interesting has to do with the reasons cited for failure of the show. Jones puts the blame squarely on the “Algerian crisis”. As he tells it in his autobiography, “We opened at the Alhambra Theater in Paris just as the Algerian crisis hit. We could hear machine-gun fire in the streets during our rehearsals.” Jones goes on to describe a fraught scene of martial strife with squads of soldiers and police patrolling the streets, stopping and questioning “swarthy-complexioned” pedestrians and generally making it sound as if their lives faced imminent danger.

Standifer’s account of the band’s adventures from an interview published in the September 1998 Cadence, gives a different cast to the story. He mentions the Alhambra’s location in the Algerian section of Paris at a time of tension between France and Algeria as affecting ticket sales, but indicates only that wealthy Parisians were unlikely to brave that part of town at that time. Standifer confirms the presence of police squads, but not that they were a threat to the American musicians. More tellingly, he says nothing about hearing machine-gun chatter, surely a detail no one would fail to talk about in an interview had they heard it. Further, Standifer assigns blame to inherent weaknesses in the show itself and mentions the second half in particular as having problems the show-doctors brought in to work on were unable to fix. Jones, having had a more vested interest in the production, is silent on this point.

Standifer’s account gains further support from jazz critic Paul de Barros. In Jackson Street After Hours (the story of Seattle jazz), De Barros refers to the Algerian crisis, but says nothing of gunfire, only that political strife between Algeria and France distracted the French public who evinced little interest in a show such as Free And Easy.

Jones’ version raises questions. For starters, he places the Paris opening in 1959 (no month given), when a date of January 1960 seems more likely. As for hearing gunfire, Q’s claim would gain credibility had the show opened 17 October 1961, the date police massacred a number of Algerians protesting for independence in the French capital, but the Americans were long gone by then. I can find no reports of gunfire while they were in Paris. (When I interviewed Buddy Catlett in 2006, he also said nothing of hearing guns.) At the very least, Standifer’s account of the Paris opening shows why more research is needed to pin down what actually happened.

In addition to historical perspective, little names can provide potential biographers with key insight into the personalities of the major players they have worked with. Consider the experience of another local legend from the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma saxophonist and arranger Bill Ramsay. Born in 1929, Ramsay remained active right up to the time of the pandemic. I last heard him in 2018 with Pete Christlieb’s 11-piece band, Tall And Small, tearing it up on a borrowed baritone sax at age 89. I called Pete last year and he informed me he had just come from Ramsay’s house where the veteran sax man had been sipping Martinis, lamenting the continued lockdown, and raring to get back on stage.

Though a little name outside the Pacific Northwest, Ramsay was certainly known to the many giants who tapped his talents during a career reaching back to the 40s. An inspired storyteller, Ramsay is a fount of anecdotes on people like Sarah Vaughan, Elvis Presley, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon, Grover Mitchell, Frank Wess, Eric Dolphy, Ernestine Anderson and many others he has played with. He regaled me with some of these stories in a 2009 interview in Tacoma. This amusing anecdote involving Mr. B, Billy Eckstine, is both entertaining and representative of B’s personality, away from the spotlight [full interview in January 2011 Cadence]:

“Well, Billy was something . . . The first time I ever worked with him was in Tacoma in about 1962 or ’63, and then we moved to Yakima in the latter part of ’64 . . . I was called back to work at the Edgewater [Seattle hotel perched on pilings over Elliott Bay] for a week, so I did, and stayed there. And after the gig, he had a two-bedroom suite, and I’d sleep in one of the beds in his piano player and conductor Bobby Tucker’s room, and so that worked out fine. And Billy would get a fishing pole and go in his bedroom and throw the fishing pole [line] out his window because it was overlooking the water. Got some scrap fish a couple of times, but he thought it was quite exciting. “All the traveling I’ve done for all these years, I get to fish out my window.

“And he was a great looking guy, and boy, the girls just loved him. And so one night we were watching television, the three of us, and there was this ringing at the front door of this hotel suite, so I peeked out the peephole, and it was three gorgeous ladies. I mean, stunning ladies. I says ‘B, there’s three gorgeous ladies out here, they want to talk to you.’ And he says ‘Ahh, I’m goin’ fishin’.’ That’s just the way he was.”

I don’t see how anyone writing a biography of Eckstine would fail to find this item of interest. Such stories humanise these larger-than-life figures, showing us glimpses of their lives that aid our understanding of them as people, even if they offer little insight into their art.

Yet another relative unknown with big-name contacts, pianist and composer Bob Hammer, is best remembered as musical director to Charles Mingus during much of the 50s and 60s, a productive period in the volcanic bassist’s career. In a 2009 interview, Hammer said this: “Every town of any size in this country has got players every bit as good as anything you’ll hear on records. They just choose not to go elsewhere.”

Were I to choose one outstanding unsung hero from the Seattle area, it would likely be neither Standifer nor Ramsay, much as I respect both men’s accomplishments. For me – as for the musicians who knew him – saxophonist Freddie Greenwell was the man in Seattle for years. “Outstanding,” Buddy Catlett called him. “A fantastic musician,” Dave Frishberg told me, implying he was the equal of an Al Cohn or a Zoot Sims, for whose two-tenor combo Frishberg had played piano. “Al and Zoot loved him,” Frishberg said, adding they’d have him sit in whenever he showed up at one of their gigs. Whether standing tall next to Bird at N.Y.C.’s Spotlite club in 1946 or jamming with Wardell Gray in L.A., as seen in two photos in Jackson Street After Hours, Fred Greenwell, by all accounts, held his own in heavy company. I used to catch his sets whenever I could and can confirm he was the equal of Al or Zoot as an improvising jazz musician. My memory of this superior jazzman – feet planted, eyes straight ahead, swinging like mad – endures.

For me, as for many, every time he picked up his horn to play, Greenwell proved a little name can possess major talent. Jazz is indeed wherever you find it.

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